Getting Serious: Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?

October 14, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 6 4 min read

coverWe don’t have to read much of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a measured and accessible polemic against (primarily English and American) contemporary culture, to realize that “Modernism” is perhaps not the best term for what he is describing. A reader looking for a neat history of early twentieth century literature, or an analysis of the usual Modernist suspects, will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title.

coverJosipovici’s book is not bound by time. To him, a literary form like the novel is inherently “modernist,” and from its origins it has always “pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else.” Cervantes knew that “the novel is precisely the form that emerges when genres no longer seem viable” and because of this, Josipovici argues, Don Quixote is a more cutting edge novel than, say, the latest Booker or Pulitzer prize-winner. This seems like a bold claim, but it is well argued. His analysis of Don Quixote does what the best criticism should: it produces an itch to read the chosen novel or poem.

Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on. To our ears this may sound like a blessing — a liberation — but it is apparently a curse, and not just in Josipovici’s mind. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying that art is reduced to “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Spontaneous creation is drained, the Muse is vanquished, and the soul is absent. Art now has everything to explain, just when the tools and the desire to do so have disappeared.

One doesn’t have to take on Beckett’s bleak philosophy entirely, but its kernel of truth remains. Josipovici presents the example of Hadyn and Beethoven; the former composed a hundred symphonies, yet Beethoven, “no less gifted, no less industrious… could only write nine.” Why is this? “The answer, quite simply, is that Hadyn didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch every time” [my italics]. This is important, and the central point of the book. How many authors do we read who really seem to start from scratch every time, to wrench the book from within, ignorant of the market, uninfluenced by the clichés of contemporary literature? Where we used to have the comfort of tradition and the “sacramental universe,” we now have the ephemeral trends of popular culture, which could also be defined as a devious evasion of the difficult questions with which Modernism has left us.

Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — they are all avoiding the responsibility of their art, its functions and its implications. To Josipovici, novels are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world,” not reflective mirrors or objects designed for middlebrow comfort. To confront this idea and take it seriously is all that is needed to dramatically affect the art. Josipovici gives us many examples of artists who have realized precisely that: from Beethoven to Picasso, Duchamp to Kafka. He finds modernism in unexpected places: especially striking is his reading of Wordsworth, which sits alongside the more predictable, and marginally less interesting, readings of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth helps us to get away from the “clichés that everywhere impede a proper understanding of modernism.”

To write a book about this subject at this particular time takes a certain amount of bravery. England is the inheritor of Larkin’s and Waugh’s cynicism in the face of what they saw as artistic pretension. America, while perhaps more comfortable with its experimental side, still contains a climate of literary confidence, rather than self-doubt; certainty and realist narrative, instead of ambiguity.

covercoverA long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.

And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.

is a freelance writer and book critic. He reviews books for The Spectator and has also written for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


  1. I’m reading Josipovici’s book now. It’s very good. My most pleasant surprise so far, for me, was his analysis of Kierkegaard. As for your comment about serious readers and contemporary culture, I’d bet that serious readers have always been in a serious minority within contemporary culture. The masses want to be entertained; always have, always will. This constant bemoaning the fact that there are so few serious readers among us, or Franzen’s whining about the passing of America’s Golden Age of Literature (late 1950s through the mid-1970s) when writers supposedly made an impact on our public affairs, is tiresome. Serious literature will always be read and appreciated by a few. That’s life. Let’s get on with the reading.

  2. I wish more persons would review Josipovici’s fiction. It’s just as amazing as his non-fic if not better (for those who view fiction as supreme).

  3. This was a great review, Ben. I saw this book get a review space in the WSJ, which piqued my interest. But I’m happy that it got better treatment here at The Millions.

    After reading through your thoughts, though, I kept returning to Elif Batuman’s recent review of Mark McGurl’s “The Programme Era” from the London Review of Books and its harsh critique of contemporary MFA program’s in America (link: I feel that Batuman and McGurl really lay the blame of middlebrow contemporary fiction at the feet of writers, where you and Josipovici go after literary critics and the culture at large.

    Ben, I’m wondering if you think the two views are polar opposites, or if both writers and reviewers are making some sort of compromise to work towards a broader point, a kind of State of Contemporary Fiction Address? I realize that this is a complex and subjective point, I just find it very interesting that two books with strong view points on the same subject were published and are getting press so close to each other.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, cb.

    I read Elif Batuman’s review when it was first published, and then again just now, and I am still confused by it. Part of the problem is that I don’t understand exactly what ‘programme fiction’ is, and I am not sure if I’ve ever read a novel that comes under that particular label. Batuman’s piece felt like a lot of force being pressed downwards. I’ve seen people on creative writing courses. They look like a strong wind would break their backs. Attacking them while they are still forming seems a little heartless, as well as misguided, and while it isn’t the polar opposite, I don’t think it’s necessarily compatible with Josipovici’s point of view.

    My problem with the culture, for what it’s worth, is that it seems to enact a reverse snobbery. It aims for a middle ground that doesn’t really exist. Who wants to read another piece about Franzen’s Freedom and whether its characters are likeable? Who wants to hear another peep from the Man Booker prize coverage? I have nothing against Franzen or literary prizes, but I would rather literary culture embraced its own elitism, rather than trying to reach out to those ghostly figures who may be on the fence. I love Martin Amis’s fiction (Josipovici and I part ways on this) but I don’t need to read an article about his favourite toothpaste. There are plenty of books out there that need the attention. Imani’s comment shows that Josopovici’s own fiction could do with some more coverage, and I agree. The exciting books are out there, as are the readers willing to buy them. The readers may not number in the millions, or the hundreds of thousands, but they are important nonetheless.

    I don’t know if this answers your question, but I tried my best.

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